The Nail of the Dog
A version of this blog was written for Your Pit Bull & You, the nonprofit I ran from 2013-2018. It served as the inspiration for Nailed It: A Course in Canine Nail Care, which ran from 2017-2020.
I have a confession to make. Though I am a dog trainer and have had dogs of my own for the past 20 years, there is one area that, until recently, has been a bit of a bugaboo for me. That area is maintenance of my own dog’s nails. This is quite embarrassing, actually, and is one of those things that could keep me up at night, asking, “Why?? Why, oh why is this so hard for me??”
I actually know the answer, but, unfortunately, up until very recently have I found a true solution.
My dog Rocco always had very thick black nails. Once, when he was very young, I cut his quick. As you can imagine, this was very traumatic for him. What I didn’t bargain for was just how traumatic it was for me. For the remainder of his life, I let the vet take care of his nails. I would have to leave the room because his discomfort was too much for me to bear. How could I have done that to him? How was I never able to make it right? The only thing I can say in my own defense was that I was as freaked out as he was, and that I have largely avoided nail maintenance ever since.
The good news is that Savannah has no issues with the clippers. Give her something yummy to lick in between clips and we are good to go. She is just a super cooperative dog who has always let me do pretty much anything to her without complaint. If there’s food involved, she’s all in. But, I’ve paid attention. I’ve watched her body language for signs that she is over it (more accurately, that she is over the cat who insists on walking back and forth between us), I’ve been super modest in my clips, as her nails are black, as well, and I’ve stopped if she shows any signs of stress. She’s completely fine with the front nails, but I take the back ones much slower, usually over the course of a day or two. I’m grateful for my easy dog.
Hazel has proven a much more difficult nut to crack. We have done quite a bit of desensitization work around the clippers, and made it as far as 2 nails. My brain kept going back to something my former mentor, Jean Donaldson has said, that having a paw grabbed in a hand is like a leg stuck in a trap. That imagery is strong for me. Remember- I have issues around this stuff, too! So, after lots of false starts, 2 steps forward and one step back, I decided to take a different approach. I broke out a regular, nail salon-type nail file. I built a positive conditioned response to it and commenced a plan to which I committed I could never go too slow with. Luckily for me, speed has turned into a bit of a non-issue. Now that I know I have a solution, I am no longer in a state of paralysis where I feel like everyone is judging my dog’s paws and like an abject failure at life.
I know I am not alone. There is a large group on Facebook devoted to nail maintenance and I soaked up much of the advice, but I still didn’t have the confidence or feel that the methods talked about would work well for us. It’s taken me longer than I would have liked to find a method that both Hazel and I are comfortable with, but I have to admit that I feel like a bit of a rock star now that I have. This is truly 14 years and 4 dogs in the making (I also had a beagle who was not too keen on nail trims), so even 1 nail would have felt like a major victory. All 4 front nails plus dew claws? #crushedit. And we’ve moved on just as easily to back nails. The thing about nail maintenance is that it never really ends. But, if you get the beginning right, it bodes well for the future. And if you get it right, you might find that you both actually enjoy it!
The Plan that I used has a few different components. Because Hazel never fully became a fan of the clippers, I really wanted to be sure I didn’t end up poisoning the nail file and have that become an object to fear. As I said earlier, I tried mighty hard to build a solid and obvious positive association to the clippers. It certainly never resembled this:
First up, I built the positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) to the nail file. In the beginning stages, there was no behavior required from her. I showed her the file, she got a high value treat (I use freeze-dried tripe). I did not put the file anywhere near her feet (or even legs) until it was very clear she loved the sight of it. I made the nail file and the tripe magically appear at random times throughout the day. It may be worth noting that unlike the clippers, I was never worried about the file (because it was completely novel and for all I know, the clippers were not before *I* got anywhere near her feet with them) and I am always super upbeat and relaxed when doing this work.
The first time I started filing, I was extremely conservative. I used a very low grit file and used minimal pressure. She got a treat after every single nail. I only went in one direction (and still do). I built up to all 4 nails done on one paw, and we stopped the session. It was very important that she never felt forced into this. I went back later and did 4 on the other paw. The first day I filed, I did 2 sessions and you can see that by the end of session 2, I had made quite a bit of progress. I was no longer dealing with talons. Win.
By session 3, I was working on her dew claws with the low grit file and able to move up to a higher grit one for the rest of her front nails. I don’t like the blocky one in the picture below, I find it bulky and getting the right angle is difficult.
With each session, I was able to hold her paw longer, use more pressure and manipulate the nail more easily. Why? Because we worked at a slow pace, she was paid well for her efforts and I was proving that it was not only not painful or scary, but relaxing enough that she has actually fallen asleep on a few occasions.
After a few sessions on just the front paws, I moved to the back. These were not nearly as long and she has had no issue with them being filed, either. Same position on her side and she lets me raise and lower her legs as needed.
We are now at the point where she gets her food party after I have done a bit of work on all 4 paws. She is relaxed, seems to really enjoy the process and this is likely the way I will handle her nails from now on. I thought about a Dremel or a scratchboard, but, quite frankly, she’s a bit of a scaredy and I worry she may have a similar reaction to them as she did the clippers. Plus, this is working for us. Why mess with it? We’re on a break for a couple of days to allow her quicks to recede. One benefit of dogs with light or white nails is knowing where the quick is. If your dog’s nails are long, and you can see the quick, you’ll have an easier time knowing how far you can go. You can’t see the quick in dogs with black nails, so it’s best to do a little at a time if the nails are long. This would apply to clipping, Dremeling or filing. Quicking a dog is not pretty, as it bleeds profusely and is painful for the dog.
One thing I decided on before I started working was that I wanted her laying on her side while I first touched, then restrained and then filed. I find this to be easiest, because she doesn’t have to move as I work, I just shift myself around and I don’t have to restrain any other part of her body. It’s well worth figuring out what position you and your dog will be most comfortable in before you begin.
Step 1:Build the positive conditioned response (+CER) to the nail file.
Step 2: Get your dog comfortable with handling of legs and feet!
Step 2.5: You may need to start up at the upper legs or elbows again for restraint.
Step 3: Once you have completed the migration to the feet and you are sure you have a dog who is sticking around willingly, work on manipulating the toes.
Step 3.5: Begin to restrain foot as if you are about to file.
Step 4: Restrain foot, manipulate toes and touch toe with file.
Step 5: Restrain foot, manipulate toes and give one nail a swipe with the file.
Step 6: At this point, you can move on to filing each nail with a little longer duration.
Step 7: Once you are comfortably filing a foot at a time, you can move to feeding after each foot and then 2, then 3, then after all 4.
Step 8: Bask in the glory of your dog’s gorgeous nails!
This may seem like a lot of work. The truth is that it’s not. And for those of us with dogs who have issues with having their nails done, it’s so very worth it. I actually find it relaxing and extremely satisfying. Hazel lays back, occasionally sneaks in a kiss or two as I am working and often nods off to sleep. I didn’t know this was possible for us, and I may not have believed it if I had read it somewhere. But, my hope is that you’ll read this and try it with your dog if you are struggling with nail maintenance, because it doesn’t have to be painful or scary. And because it doesn’t have to be, it shouldn’t be.